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Your eyes do not deceive you: After 10 matches, Barcelona sit in ninth place in La Liga. Ninth!
In what is their worst start to a league campaign since 1971, Ronald Koeman’s side sit just three points above the relegation zone and 12 points behind leaders Atletico Madrid.
On Saturday, Barcelona lost 2-1 on the road to newly promoted minnows Cadiz, marking their fourth defeat of the season. In less than three months, they have already lost more times than they did during their entire 2018-19 campaign.
Right now, things are bleak for a team that expects nothing less than victory in every competition it enters — and their lowest ebb may still be on the horizon.
Liverpool drubbing kickstarted Barcelona’s plunge
Some argue that Barca haven’t been the same since May 2019, when a league title was followed closely by a sobering 4-0 hammering by Liverpool in the Champions League. The psychological effects of that devastating loss at Anfield cannot be understated; two weeks later, they lost the Copa del Rey final. They have won only half their away trips since.
To put a finer point on it, a side who are used to casually vacuuming up trophies haven’t really come close to any silverware in the 19 months since their trip to Merseyside.
So what has happened to the Spanish giants that has left them at such a nadir?
For starters, the front office has not set up the organization for sustainable success. Over $327 million was spent on new players last season, but the squad was so poorly prepared for injuries that the club was given special dispensation to poach Martin Braithwaite from Leganes last February. This emergency transfer came a matter of weeks after coach Ernesto Valverde was fired in a very messy and protracted saga.
Despite being one of the biggest clubs in the world, Barca also find themselves in precarious financial circumstances. They have the biggest wage bill in world soccer — Lionel Messi alone is paid a staggering $36 million a year — and have suffered significant losses during the COVID-19 pandemic. The first team squad was forced to take pay cuts in 2020, while non-playing staff were controversially paid with a furlough scheme funded by taxpayers.
Suffice to say, Barcelona are not in a position to spend their way to a stronger squad this January.
Such is the turmoil off the field in Catalunya that club president Josep Bartomeu resigned in October, and the entire board stepped down. That shock change of personnel at the executive level came two months after one of Barca’s most embarrassing defeats, the 8-2 humiliation at the hands of Bayern Munich in Lisbon. It appears the club’s off-field troubles are closely mirrored by their poor results, and the weekend loss at Cadiz represents a microcosm of the problems they have been facing all season.
Recent loss encapsulates Barcelona’s tactical issues
Koeman’s side arrived in the picturesque Andalusian town on the back of three consecutive wins, with a belief that they may have established some balance in their side. But it took only eight minutes for the visitors to fall behind for the first time, courtesy of a corner that was calamitously defended.
A Jordi Alba cross forced an own-goal equalizer, but Cadiz claimed three points due to a cacophony of defensive errors. Alba’s ill-judged throw-in was let go by intended target Clement Lenglet, allowing striker Alvaro Negredo to easily navigate a feckless attempt at a block from goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Yes, a season that has been defined by individual errors saw a triple mistake for the losing goal on Saturday.
Barcelona have dropped 11 points in away games this season as the direct result of individual errors, a pattern that suggests a team-wide lack of confidence, rather than multiple isolated moments of bad luck.
Serious questions may also be asked of the setup and tactical approach of coach Koeman. A midfield pivot featuring Sergio Busquets and Frenkie De Jong has been shown ineffective on multiple occasions against sides, like Cadiz, who are happy to defend in numbers and absorb pressure.
Injuries to Sergi Roberto and Gerard Pique, meanwhile, have hampered the backline (although the latter looks increasingly unsuited to the high defensive line that Koeman prefers).
But Barca’s biggest on-field issues concern their attack. Against Cadiz, Philippe Coutinho was played on the left wing, where he is not at his most effective. Messi's tendency to drift centrally meant that he, Antoine Griezmann and Braithwaite were occupying the same space. When Ousmane Dembele, Trincao and Miralem Pjanic were introduced, there were effectively six attacking players in the final third, creating a congestion that was not entirely useful against an opponent who parks the bus.
Barcelona had 82% possession and 21 shots against Cadiz but still managed to lose. Ten of those 21 shots came from Messi, who continues to carry the weight of the club upon his shoulders, without delivering to his own incredibly high standards.
Messi magic must return for Barcelona to break down defensive-minded opponents
Since his failed summer attempt to leave the Camp Nou, the Argentine has lacked sharpness and a clinical edge, yet he remains the main outlet for creativity. At one point in Saturday’s match, Messi even dispossessed his own teammate in a fruitless attempt to find the net. He is still placed on free kick duty, despite a low rate of success from dead balls in recent seasons.
It is clear that Barca are creating chances, but they simply are not finishing them. At least part of the blame for that must fall on their talisman, who was once so reliable in front of goal.
The three wins that preceded Barca’s trip to Cadiz consisted of a pair of big Champions League victories and a 4-0 home demolition of Osasuna. When Koeman’s team face expansive sides who are willing to push forward and leave space, they are generally successful. But when they face sides who sit in a low block — like Cadiz , Alaves or even Atletico Madrid — they do not have any answers.
Herein lies the problem: The majority of Barca’s domestic opponents will choose to defend in a low block. Hence, Barca’s mission to climb back up the La Liga table will not be easy without big changes.
Much like Arsenal in the Premier League, Barcelona are punching below their weight due to questionable front-office decisions, inadequate coaching and tactics, and a set of players who lack both confidence and youth. Barca have less obstacles in their way to climb back into the Champions League berths than the Gunners, but it will be an arduous task all the same.
Going into this season, with highly congested fixtures, empty stadiums and a higher likelihood of injuries and pandemic-related absences, it was clear that some of Europe’s biggest titans would suffer. However, Barcelona’s drop in fortunes was telegraphed long before COVID-19 came into our lives.
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